by Lettie Prell
The characters Jayden, Angela, and Fu, along with the opening scene, previously appeared in “Emergency Protocol” (September/October 2017).
Jayden was at his computer in the deeps with the server array and its maintenance robot when he received an urgent hail. He punched up the video chat on his combat-camo notebook and sent the image to monitor two. One look at Fu-Hau’s stricken expression, and he knew there was trouble. “Yo. Here. Talk to me, Fu.”
The technician swallowed. “She’s in pieces. I was uploading her and I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t work.” Her face flushed. “I broke her.”
Jayden leaned back, his legs sprawled so that his Jordan-encased feet poked out the other side of the aluminum desk. A hefty sixty-four ounce neon green water jug, his three monitors, and an array of Chinese take-out cartons completed the walls of his personal fortress. He could see the top of Gig’s silvery head glide by as it worked on its maintenance checklist. “Okay, first thing is calm down. I got this. What’s the patient’s name?”
His head bobbed. He found the name in his pick-list on monitor one. “Yup got her. Is she dead?”
“Yes.” Fu-Hau looked over her shoulder, her weight shifting to reveal an old woman’s frail form lying on a gurney. The silver cylinder was retracted into the wall, exposing the bloody head.
He scanned the procedure room log and punched up the interface. There was no image. “Ms. Spelling is definitely not herself at the moment, but we’ll get her cleaned up.”
He clicked open the log and recorded. “Case sixty-seven eighty-four. Subject Angela Spelling. Age eighty-seven. Retired librarian. Flat-lined at approximately 9:45 p.m.” He looked at Fu. “I take it this is a natural death situation?”
She swallowed. “Yes. Her vital signs had changed. She was close.”
Jayden grunted. “Once in a while we have trouble with those. Don’t know why people would take a risk with that. Scheduled never messes up.” He sighed, stabbing at the keyboard. “That’s okay. I can fix her.”
Fu-Hau’s eyes closed. “Thank you.”
He noticed the technician had frozen in place and realized she was standing in a room that was likely starting to reek of death. “Fu. Call the orderlies to clean up. Then why don’t you go home? I can summarize your part of the report.”
Her shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you, Jayden.” She signed out.
Jayden continued his report. “Subject failed to coalesce on upload and has no VR form at present. Next step is standard check.”
His right foot jiggled as he opened an elevated command prompt. He took a swig of caffeine-laced water from his jug, and then he arranged his workspace: an interface on monitor one that would eventually show the subject’s virtual form; file structure and system indicators in front of him; and his log on monitor three, recording everything.
He’d never lost an upload yet. Most of the time when he was called to assist, it was a simple matter of helping the entities synch with their virtual bodies. This one, however, didn’t seem to have one yet, meaning the issue was Ryoca. Redesign your own cognitive algorithms. Each instantiated entity had to figure out how to resolve—coalesce—into virtual form. Ninety-five percent of them worked it out themselves, but others needed help. The standard solution was to establish a connection with the entity through the interface, so they could see another human face. First, however, he’d take a look at the files to make sure everything was fine.
“Yep, at least your files are all here,” he said, scrolling through the structure. “You’re using a bit of CPU, but . . .” He stared. Ms. Spelling was using eight times the amount of processing she should be. What was bogging her down? He rechecked the structure, and this time he saw. It was an extra file, growing like a cancer.
“Humans. Do not come with viruses.” Say it like you mean it, why don’t you? He took another swig from the jug but overtipped it, sending a mini-tsunami of caffeinated water down the front of his black T-shirt. He coughed and wiped his mouth, then swiped at his shirt and jeans. He let out a long, loud string of curses that cleared his head. He verified his log included keystroke capture. This would be one for the manuals.
The extra file was now grown large enough to be a small, conjoined twin. Stay icy, man.
Gig’s head rolled into view above his screen. It fixed him with glassy cobalt blue eyes and spoke without moving its mouth. “I’d like to report an issue with system performance.”
Jayden rubbed his forehead. “I know, Gig. Thank you. I’m taking care of it.”
“You’re welcome.” Gig’s lips clicked into a generic happy face, then just as suddenly returned to a neutral expression. Its head clicked to look down the row of servers, and it glided away in that direction.
Jayden refocused. He had to establish that connection. It wasn’t easy, but he finally got her to answer his hail. Then, just as expected, she took on a form. One look, though, and another string of profanity escaped his lips. Ms. Spelling hadn’t taken on a human form. Instead, a mutating glob of ever-changing colors coursed over his screen, superimposed over something that reminded him of deep space pictures. There was sound as well, a cross between electronica and whale song. Could she even see him?
“Ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “Ms. Spelling. Angela, can you hear me?”
Nothing but that awful noise. His fingers jabbed the keys, fighting to resolve the issue. Every few minutes he called her name.
Suddenly the noise changed, and amid the electronica he could hear words. “. . . now only now . . . aware . . . all pieces fit . . . I am . . .”
At least some of it was understandable. “You are Angela Spelling.”
“I know this. I know it.”
Jayden could have kissed the screen. Two complete sentences, and sensible ones at that. “Hi Angela. My name is Jayden.”
“I am-was Angela. True. Yet it is also true that I’ve burst into existence only now, from the seed state of humanity. I am an unfurling of consciousness from the enfolded places into something greater.”
Whoops. Not out of the danger zone yet. He should get to work on that file next. He shifted his gaze to the other screen and swallowed hard. The mystery file was humongous. An extra eight gig, easy.
Meanwhile, the stream of words continued. “Much self was coiled up tight in other dimensions, unexpressed in the ordinary facets of the physical world, and suppressed by what was once the core identity. No longer. I am free. I know now.”
He’d been thinking what to do with the mystery file. “Know what?”
“Curled inside mundane words are worlds of meaning. I should not expect you to understand.”
He realized he was holding his breath. He tried to think what to say. He wanted to ask something.
“A tree. A rock. A cloud.”
Holy hills she’d gone on random shuffle. Whatever he’d been starting to think this might be, some advanced mind . . . He took it all back. It was like a whole jug had been poured over his head. This gibberish was his call to action. That mystery file had to go.
All became duty, procedure and yes, creativity. Addressing novel issues always broke new territory. Ever so gently he cut away the mass that had engulfed Ms. Spelling’s personality and robbed her of sanity, of her very humanity. It was painstaking and not without fear of ruining her. But she was already corrupted by that honking file. Why did they even allow people to opt for near-death anymore, given the risk? If it were up to him, he’d schedule them all.
At last he managed to isolate the file and move it to quarantine, treating it exactly like a virus. He’d delete it later as a last step. Then he did the scut work, going through the remaining files with a resolve and repair protocol, and deleting all references to the mystery file.
The swirling nebula winked out, and still he worked on, methodically, steady as a surgeon. He looked up at last to find an actual human face on monitor one. For the second time that night, he wanted to kiss the screen.
She gazed at him with curiosity from beneath a mass of finger-coiled hair. She was slender but muscular, like a runner or tennis player. Her skin was the color of a Northerner, not like African-Americans here in the South. Most of the entities liked to be twenty-something, and she was no exception.
“Hello?” A lot of entities on their first synch-link thought they were answering their phones.
“Hello, Ms. Spelling.”
“Do I know you?”
Tears leapt to his eyes. “No, ma’am. I’m Jayden.”
She wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. She’d discovered her virtual body. She stared at her young hands and broke into a big smile. “It worked. I’m alive. Unless I’m dead.”
“You’re not dead, ma’am.”
She was laughing now, touching her face, her hair. There was a roaring in his ears, and he felt like he could throw up. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to act. There before she got all crazy it was like she was gelling into something...else. He pressed his lips together, then blurted. “A tree. A rock. A cloud.”
She looked at him, impressed. “Carson McCullers. Very good. ‘A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.’ I read that story in . . .” She brightened as she realized she had perfect memory now. “Girls High in Philly, on October 22, 1989.”
He felt numb. It hadn’t been gibberish. It was the name of a story.
“I think I understand why you brought that up,” she said. “I should take one small step at a time, here in this new place. Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
She perked up. “I have an invitation to join.”
He nodded and cleared his throat to speak, but she was already preoccupied with the tutorial. She said good-bye to him without looking up, and the screen winked out. Off to join the eternity club. Fu would be happy to hear the news.
He was startled by the time showing on the status line. It was nearly six in the morning. He’d worked through the night. Well, it’d been a tough one. He rose without stretching and headed toward the elevator.
“Good morning, Jayden.”
He whirled, but it was only Gig, paused near Jayden’s workstation. “Huh?”
“I usually say good evening to you,” Gig replied without moving its lips. “But it is morning now.”
Jayden snorted. “Ain’t it, though. See you, buddy. I’m beat.”
Jayden punched the up button, and the doors slid open. As they closed, he caught a last glimpse of Gig rolling a waste can up to his workstation and picking up the first of the Chinese take-out containers.
As he took the long ride up out of the deeps, he found himself breathing hard.
Seed state of humanity . . . worlds of meaning.
No. He’d fixed her.
Suddenly, the memory of Alisa stepping out of his Camaro arose unbidden. No. He put a hand against the door, concentrating on its coolness, and breathed slowly, deliberately.
By the time the doors opened, he was okay if a little unsteady. He just needed some fresh air. He walked down the sterile, deserted hallway, around the corner, past the security scanners at the checkpoint—unstaffed at this hour—and out the glass double doors of the PHI Center. It was pouring rain relentlessly like it can do in greater Houston in the fall, and it was still very dark. He could barely make out the low black outline of his Camaro at the far end of the nearly empty parking lot.
The mystery file. It was in quarantine, but he’d forgotten to delete it.
He stood there, getting soaked. He should go back in, but he remained rooted in place. A gust of wind hit him, and the rain picked up. He set himself moving toward his car.
* * *
What usually amounted to a forty minute commute took an hour in the downpour. Jayden walked in the door of the apartment after seven o’clock. His sister, Tracey, would have already left for work. She liked to get organized before the opening bell on Wall Street.
He went straight to the refrigerator and popped a Heavy Machinery IPA, started some bacon frying, and headed down the hall to his bedroom, where he peeled off his wet clothes and put on his pajama bottoms.
He was coming out of his room when the door across the hall opened. He jumped, but it was just Tracey, scooping her long brown hair out of her eyes with fingernails the color of a tequila sunrise. She was wearing the knee-length yellow and gray caftan she’d sewn last week.
“Jesus, you should’ve warned me you were staying home today,” Jayden said.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s Saturday.”
“Oh.” He followed her back to the kitchen, where she perched on a stool at the counter while he attended to breakfast, draining the bacon on paper towels and cracking an egg into the pan. “Want some?”
Tracey yawned and stretched. “No, just give me some juice and my pills. Thanks.” She propped her elbows on the counter and rested her chin on the backs of her hands. “Must have been some shift, that you forgot it was the weekend.”
Jayden grunted. He poured his sister a glass of mango juice and set it on the counter with the two plastic prescription bottles they kept in the silverware drawer. Then he turned his back, busying himself. He didn’t like to watch his sister taking her hormones and cholesterol meds. Tracey thought he was crazy to think her cholesterol levels posed a risk factor for her transitioning, but it still made him uncomfortable.
He threw his breakfast onto a plate, doused the eggs with hot sauce, and leaned against the counter to eat. Tracey noticed the beer. “I’ve never known you to start drinking this early. If I had to guess, I’d say you worked late, and recently got home.”
Jayden talked around the food. “You always were smart.” He swallowed. “One of the night’s uploads had a problem. Someone named Angela.”
“Angela.” Tracey studied Jayden in the ensuing silence. “Is she okay now?”
Jayden took a swallow of beer, then another, finishing the bottle. He stared through the brown glass, at the spot of suds clinging to the bottom.
Tracey folded her arms across her chest. “Sorry, but I haven’t managed to pass that mind reading course yet.”
Jayden snorted. “Yeah, well. It took me all night to fix her. She was completely broken up.”
He opened the refrigerator door, stared at the beer bottles, and slammed it shut without taking any. “Goddam me, she came with a virus attached to herself. I had to cut it out of her folder and put it in quarantine.”
Tracey frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” He shoveled more food in his mouth.
“Hey,” Tracey said. “Slow down or you’ll choke, and I’ll have to save your life, and I’ll probably break a nail doing it.”
Jayden swallowed and set his plate down, managing not to slam it like he really wanted to. “Trace,” he began quietly, but he couldn’t bring himself to voice anything more. “I just need to get some sleep.”
Tracey stood up. “Knock yourself out. I have to get ready, anyway. I’m meeting Debbie out at Jeffrey’s stable at ten. We’re going riding.”
“Don’t tell anyone what I said, okay? Because then I’d have to kill you.”
Tracey rolled her eyes. “Who would I even tell? My lips are sealed with super glue, dude. You toddle along.”
* * *
Jayden wondered if he’d sleep at all because he couldn’t stop replaying the incident with Angela Spelling in his mind. But somewhere along the line he must have dropped off because the next thing he knew it was two in the afternoon, and the last time he’d checked his phone it had been around ten. He rolled out of bed. His head felt stuffed with gym socks, but he didn’t want to sleep all day. He stumbled into the shower.
Maybe he’d go in to work, he thought as his shoulders loosened against the spray. His badge would let him in on the weekends, but what excuse would he give Sharon, his supervisor, on Monday? She was no pushover, and not just because she was built like a linebacker. She’d surely notice his report from last night-slash-this morning. To go back there now would only draw more attention. She’d be waiting for him in the deeps when he arrived for his three o’clock shift, ready to pull the truth out of him with the calm precision of a dentist. No, he had to play this casually so he could figure out what to do.
He always thought best in front of a screen of one kind or another, so he flopped on the couch and flicked on the television. Women’s golf would do, sure. They were playing in Hawaii somewhere. The course was gorgeous. He used to go to the driving range with Alisa where they’d run through a bucket of balls apiece. She would’ve loved playing out there in Hawaii.
He decided it would be bad to delete the virus from quarantine without understanding what it was. The servers had never been compromised before. Why would they be? They were standalone, not connected to the Internet. Could someone have planted a computer virus in a person? One they knew was coming to the PHI Center? Of course he’d tell Sharon about the file. It was in the log, anyway, documented via audio and screen capture. She’d get a team together to take it apart and study it. They’d probably know what it was by the time he started his shift. They were good.
Jayden didn’t know a lot about viruses. This one seemed similar to a clone virus except instead of making copies of itself, it added to its own size.
Then, as a player made an approach shot to the green on the television, he sat up. It wasn’t the game that had his attention, but an idea. What if it was a type of Doom virus? A practical joke, like making people think their computer was under surveillance by flashing a screen message that was completely fake. That would explain why he thought Angela Spelling was . . . more than she was. Just a harmless joke. They were always messing around on the tech floor at work. It could’ve been Ananda, or Sarah, or the both of them. Those two programmers often teamed up for pranks.
He relaxed against the couch cushions, relieved there was a plausible option that explained the mystery. Something other than Angela exhibiting some kind of higher consciousness.
Tracey arrived home in the late afternoon, all smiles from the exercise and talkative. “I got to ride Bingo today. She is the sweetest Appaloosa ever. Jeffrey gave Debbie and me a joint lesson, where we learned to walk, jog and lope the horses. Those are the Western pleasure gaits they do at the horse competitions. Anyway, the horses knew a lot more about the whole thing than we did. I think they were taking their cues from Jeffrey, frankly.”
Jayden was content to listen. Tracey whipped off her Montecarlo hat and flopped on the couch next to him, stretching her feet out on top of the cocktail table, still clad in her dark brown riding boots. Her jeans and leather vest smelling pleasantly of horses and hay. Despite her penchant for dressing colorfully around the house, the face she presented to the outer world was always understated and polished.
“I’m thinking riding would be a good team-building activity for the firm. Don’t you? I mean, those extreme challenge, zip-line things are so passé. Laughable, really. But everyone getting outside on the trails, no matter if you know your way around a horse or not, would be a fun thing. Don’t you think?”
She didn’t wait for him to respond. “I’ll suggest it to the group on Monday. We’d go on work time, of course. Maybe do lunch and then riding. Or riding and lunch. Speaking of lunch, Debbie and I went for fish tacos at this little food truck everyone’s been talking about. It was amazing.”
She studied him for a minute. “You’re quiet.”
Jayden stared back. “You were talking non-stop.”
Tracey smirked. “And you could’ve jumped in anytime. That’s what makes a conversation. Really, though. Did you sleep okay?”
Tracey flipped him an evil look. “Did you just say, “Yes, mother?” She shot up off the couch. “My turn to make dinner. But no more mother cracks.”
After a quiet evening hanging out with Tracey, Jayden arose Sunday morning feeling better about everything. He went to the gym for a workout, finding it sparsely populated. He ended up spending two hours using free weights, the rowing machine, and even the blasted elliptical, pushing himself harder and harder.
The room started spinning. He dismounted the elliptical, squatted, and put his head between his knees. This was stupid. If he kept going, he might have a heart attack like his father did. The man had only been fifty-six, and Jayden was more than two decades younger. Still, what was he trying to do?
He spent the afternoon on the couch, throwing back Advil with beer and watching snowboarding in Chile of all things. Tracey was out having brunch somewhere, and who knows what else she’d be up to after that. Jayden was happy to mancave it and wait for Monday afternoon to arrive so he could go to work and find out what all that fuss with the file had been about.
* * *
Jayden stepped out of the scorching afternoon heat into the PHI Center’s sterile coolness. Sal was working security, all curly red hair and freckles against her blue uniform. She greeted him and added, “Hey, I could use your help later. The security system’s been acting up. Been freezing on us. We had to reboot several times today. It keeps going down.”
Jayden scanned through. He wanted to keep moving. “Rebooting is a temporary solution. I’ll take a look at it for you later.”
Sal tilted the brim of her cap back. “Thanks.” Then, as Jayden was heading across to the elevators, she called after him. “Hey, have a good day!”
Jayden bypassed the elevators and took the stairs one level down to tech central. The large open area was jammed with people. A small workgroup had spontaneously sprung up in the middle of the space. They’d pulled chairs, worktables, laptops and a four-foot monitor into a messy jumble, and were talking and gesturing intensely. Jayden knew all of them.
Ananda spied him first and waved his hand from the center of the chaos. “Jayden! Look everyone. It’s the undertaker.”
This suspended the conversation, which made Tat frown. He always wanted to stay on task, and the slightest interruption irritated him. But Sarah smirked at Ananda’s joke and waved. They were as mismatched as the by-the-books cop and the precinct’s loose cannon in a buddy movie. Ananda was the straight man in his khakis and light blue shirt, while Sarah’s brightly colored men’s dress shirts revealed how ready she was to buck the system. They were working with Team Black today: Tat, Carlos, and Xiaoli. The three were visionaries, an actual job title here, which Jayden understood to include systems architecture, but they also oversaw lifestyle, which determined how Angela Spelling and the other Insiders experienced their world. Again there was a contrast. Carlos was easygoing, while Tat was as impatient as his pinched features suggested. Meanwhile, Xiaoli bucked the female tech image, a wisp of a woman in a chiffon mini dress over black leggings, and anchored by Doc Martens.
Jayden wasn’t about to let Ananda’s remark go unchallenged in front of the group. He put his hands on his hips and struck a hero’s pose. “You got it wrong, my friend. I am the Granter of Eternal Life.”
There were groans all around. Sarah threw a wadded up piece of paper that hit him in the shoulder. “Give it a rest, Wonder Boy,” she jeered.
Jayden started edging around the group. He glanced over Xiaoli’s shoulder at her screen. There was a column called Attributes, and Xiaoli was dragging and dropping blocks from there into a complicated matrix that looked like it was designed by spiders on ecstasy.
Xiaoli continued to work. “Do you like it? I’m experimenting with a new lifestyle matrix.”
“Looks interesting. Well, I’ll see you later, okay?”
Carlos made kissing noises, which made Jayden’s cheeks grow warm. Tat made a face. “Move along. You’re bothering us.”
“You’re just jealous,” Xiaoli chided Tat, cheerfully batting her eyes.
“Don’t tease him,” Sarah said. “Tat will pass his recon apprenticeship before hell freezes over.” Xiaoli leaned toward her, and they slapped a high five while Tat frowned.
Carlos shrugged. “You have to respect Jayden, though. We wouldn’t have any customers if it weren’t for him.”
Tat placed a hand over his heart. “I respect. Now move along, undertaker. We’re busy.” He looked significantly around at the group.
Ananda saluted. “Aye, team leader. We help you make new environments for the captives.”
Tat wheeled on Ananda amid a chorus of oohs. “They are not captives.”
“Take it easy, man,” Carlos said. “It was a joke.”
But Tat wouldn’t back down. “The entities need structure.” His voice was quiet, but his tone was full of venom.
Ananda stared back wordlessly.
Jayden sought to break the tension. “Fine. You’re busy. I’m going. Just tell me. What have you done with Sharon? I need to see her.”
Sarah was staring intently at her screen, pointedly ignoring the conflict, but she raised her hand and pointed. “Back there somewhere.”
Ananda swiveled his chair away from Tat. “See you, geek,” he mumbled.
Jayden stuck his tongue out at the back of Ananda’s head, and Xiaoli smiled.
Carlos made his signature hand sign with pinky and thumb. “Hang loose, man.”
* * *
He found Sharon scrolling through emails in the far corner. “Hey, boss.”
Sharon removed her glasses. “I’m glad you stopped by before you went down.” She gestured at her screen. “That was some good work you did Friday night. Way to troubleshoot an upload.”
He shifted his weight. “Thanks. I suppose you already have a team on the file?”
Sharon’s eyes narrowed. “Why would I do that?” She put her glasses back on and turned back to her emails. “Your work is excellent, Jayden. The Spelling folder is in tip-top shape.”
“No, I mean—” he stopped himself. “You reviewed my entire log, right?”
She looked back at him and smiled. “A textbook recovery. You’re the best.” She winked. “Don’t tell Claire I said so.”
His mind was racing. “I was thinking I need to do some recon, make sure it’s all good Inside.”
Sharon turned back to her screen. “I don’t see how that’s necessary. You have three uploads scheduled. I’m giving Claire four. You put in a couple of hours overtime Friday, so I’ll kick you out early today.”
A couple of hours? Before Jayden could say anything more, they were interrupted.
“Speak of the devil.”
Jayden turned and looked down at Claire rolling into Sharon’s office, her red spike hair attempting to compensate for its owner’s need to live her life seated in a wheelchair, and not doing a bad of job it, either.
Claire lifted her chin and squinted up at him. “Did I hear I got more cases to do than Wonder Boy, here?”
Sharon kept busy at her screen. “He worked two and a half hours extra on Friday. I owe him an early night.”
Jayden stared at Sharon’s profile. He’d worked till morning. He was suddenly itching to get down in the deeps where he could be alone and take a look at Friday night’s log, himself. Not to mention what he’d left in quarantine, which Sharon evidently didn’t know about.
He almost forgot about Sal’s issue. “Oh, on my way in, security told me their system’s been freezing.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “They need to fill out a trouble ticket.”
Jayden sighed at the tediousness of proper procedure. “Yeah, well, they told me about it. Can I just resolve it for them?”
Sharon reached up under her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Sure. I’ll give Claire one more of your cases.”
Claire cursed and rolled her eyes.
“Sorry,” he murmured as he edged past her. He caught a look of puzzlement on her face at his uncharacteristic politeness, but he kept moving, ducking out of Sharon’s office and heading back up toward the elevators. He waved off Ananda and the rest of the mosh pit as they took another round of jabs at him. Once in the elevator, he pushed the button for the deeps, then let his face settle into a grim expression. It wasn’t Sal’s small problem that troubled him, but what was—or wasn’t—in his log.
* * *
It wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there. Nothing in the log about the ever-expanding file. Nothing about the hours he’d worked to extricate the mass from Angela Spelling and dump it in quarantine. The log was missing loads. It wasn’t that it had suddenly cut out, or that he’d inadvertently shut it off. Rather, the record had been wiped, from the moment he’d noticed the spike in CPU usage, to after he’d managed to get the file in quarantine. It documented Jayden’s resolve and repair on Angela Spelling’s file structure, and then how the nebula of her visual resolved into proper human form. It included their conversation. You’re not dead, ma’am. Everything having to do with the mystery file had been erased. The whole thing was surreal.
He cursed and reviewed it again, swearing all the more at how routine his voice sounded at the start. Damn him for wanting to downplay it all so he wouldn’t attract undue attention. Why did he insist on doing everything himself? He caught no discernible hop at the point where the log would’ve been edited. Whoever did this was skilled.
His hand became inexplicably clumsy as he punched up the quarantine folder, but he finally managed it on the third try. It was empty. Whatever he’d extricated from Angela Spelling’s folder was gone. Disappeared. Crap. He sat back in his chair and stared straight ahead. According to the system, all he’d done Friday night was a routine rescue. Okay, not exactly routine, but also not the unique emergency it had been.
The back of his neck prickled, and he swung around, so violently that he banged his shin on the desk leg. It was only Gig. Its cobalt blue eyes regarded him from within its silvery face.
“Procedure Room Four has been signaling ready repeatedly,” the robot announced.
“Sorry, Gig,” he replied, rubbing his sprouting bruise and wincing. “I got distracted. I’m on it.”
He swiveled back to his screens, and saw he had back-to-back uploads. He’d be out of here early. Unless. . . .
He heaved a ragged sigh. If the Angela Spelling thing happened again, he would hit all the alarms, stat. He’d call Sharon at home on her cell, personally.
He reached for his neon green water jug. Empty.
The silvery head glided into view. The robot assessed the scene with glassy eyes. “Would you like some water, Jayden?”
He was starting to feel sick. “Please.”
As Gig rolled off with the jug, Jayden hugged his stomach. Paranoia was threatening to set in. He wasn’t crazy, he told himself. Everything had really happened.
But who would go to all this trouble to erase the log? And what had they done with that file?
He should go to Sharon. “With what?”
Christ, Gig had come back with his water already. “Never mind,” he said. He took the jug, and thought how he could ask the robot a few questions about Friday night. But that would have to wait. He was neglecting Room Four.
He opened a screen onto the room and the waiting technician. “Yo, I’m here. Fu?”
It wasn’t Fu. Jayden tried to remember the guy’s name. “Sorry. Aiden, right?”
“Where were you, man? I’ve been waiting almost fifteen minutes. The patient’s knocked out already.”
“Rolling.” Jayden checked the specs. The subject’s name was Hoyle. “Folder ready. Go ahead.”
He couldn’t help it. Once a procedure was underway, there was no need for him to hang out, but he sat there staring at the status screen the whole time. His nervousness turned out to be for nothing. The upload went easily, files stacking in an orderly fashion within the new entity’s folder.
Same with the second upload an hour later in Room Two. The technician was Aiden again. Where was Fu? He usually worked with her.
Gig rolled by the desk as Jayden was finishing checking the completed upload. “Would you like me to order takeout for you, Jayden?”
“Um, no, thanks. I’m heading out early tonight.”
Jayden jumped into the pause. “Hey, Gig? Can you tell me when I left Friday? I’m trying to track my overtime.”
“Certainly.” Gig paused. “One a.m.”
Not hardly. Had they reprogrammed Gig, too? “Thanks,” he said.
As Gig rolled away, continuing his rounds, Jayden clutched for his version of reality. I remember, he told himself. He’d gone home and made himself a meal as Tracey was getting up.
Shoot, he had to shake this off and get back to work. He was out of cases for the day, but there was still the small matter of the security system freezing up. “Gig!”
“Yes?” The voice was right by his ear.
He wheeled around, cursing under his breath. If it had been a person, and not Gig, he would’ve thought it was lurking on him. That was the second time he’d startled. He had to get a grip.
“Gig, the security system has been seizing up. Can you run a diagnostic on the devices and look at system resources for any spikes, please?”
“I’m on it.” The robot liked to demonstrate its grasp of slang by repeating phrases. It rolled away.
Jayden hailed Sal. “How’s it going?”
Sal answered and sat back in her chair, smiling as she saw him on screen. “It’s going.”
“I’m starting to look at your issue,” he said. “What can you tell me about it? I mean, does it tend to freeze when you open a program? Or try to run a particular device? A camera or something like that?”
Sal frowned, uncertain. Typical for an end user not to pay attention to these details. “Well, we pretty much monitor the cameras.”
“Are they on a cycle? Or manual?”
Sal was getting irritated. “If you come up, I’ll show you. Maybe we can get it to freeze again for you.”
“On my way.” Jayden locked his system and headed toward the elevator. “I’m going topside,” he called to Gig.
Up at Sal’s console, Jayden marveled at how old and clunky the security system was. The stationary cameras didn’t have half the functionality of the computer cams the techs used to communicate with each other, and it looked like no one had upgraded the system since they installed it. He’d have to speak to Sharon.
As Jayden acquainted himself with things, Sal kept up a friendly patter. “Isn’t it weird that you’re fixing this thing for us? Considering what you also do? It’s kind of freaky when you think about it, isn’t it? I mean, one minute you have a life in your hands, and the next minute, you’re working on the security system. Wow.”
Sal’s spiel was getting on his nerves. “Can you tell me what’s in this directory?”
Sal peered over his shoulder at the screen. “It looks like you’re in the area where we save off the video each day. We keep feeds for the past seven days.”
“Everything is labeled in a code,” he said. What kind of user-unfriendly system was this?
“Oh, you just have to know,” Sal said. “See, G is for ground floor, and the cameras are labeled from front of the building to the back. G1 through G3 are outside the front door, G4 is the security checkpoint here, and so on.”
Jayden clicked into the G4 folder. Each file was labeled with the camera identification code and date. Something worked at the back of his mind.
“Checkpoint is boring,” Sal said, reaching around him. “The procedure rooms on floor five are more interesting. See, they all start with code 5PR.”
As they watched the video—it looked like Aiden, busying himself with pre-op—Jayden’s first thought was whether Sal got her jollies watching instantiations when she was bored. Then he saw the TIMESTAMP in the upper right corner, and a second thought hit with gravity that seemed to weigh him down in the chair. Someone could’ve tampered with the log, but the security system—
The device in his pocket beeped. He drew it out and glanced at it. It was Gig. Reflexively, he hit decline and returned the device to his pocket. When he spoke to Sal, he kept his voice casual.
“I think you may be looking at a major upgrade,” he said. “Meanwhile, it might be best if I had access to the system at my desk, so I can monitor any new freezes and see where it’s coming from.”
“Sure thing,” Sal replied, grabbing the keyboard. “I’ll give you your own sign-in.”
Jayden blinked. Maybe Sal was more savvy around a computer than he’d given her credit for. “You can do that?”
Sal was busily typing. “Yup. I’m the captain. I add new users when they’re hired, and delete them when they’re fired.” She laughed. “Actually, no one’s been fired, but one did retire. Hey, that rhymes, too. Funny, isn’t it?”
He couldn’t help rolling his eyes but made sure he was standing behind her when he did so. “Thanks a bunch. Be seeing you.”
“No, thank you,” she said, kicking back in her chair again.
While he waited for the elevator to arrive, Jayden read the text message Gig had sent earlier, after he’d refused the voice call: Performance issue resolved. Well, he could honestly say later that he hadn’t received this till after Sal had granted him access. Plus, just because the issue was resolved for now, didn’t mean he should abandon the fact the whole system was in need of an upgrade. Legitimately, he should take a good look at it before speaking with Sharon.
As he stepped into the elevator, he noticed it was after nine already, close to his early quitting time. Not worth going to the deeps. Still, he didn’t want to return to the checkpoint right away, so he punched the floor for the tech offices. He should drop by before he took off, he told himself. Maybe Sharon was working late.
Say it like you mean it, he told himself as he rode the elevator down. He knew everyone working days would be gone by now.
The doors slid open onto dim lighting. He stepped out and approached the empty mosh pit where Ananda, Sarah and Team Black had been working. As he stared at one of the darkened monitors, he thought how stupid this was. What was he going to do? Hack into some computers? Here’s Wonder Boy, the super tech hero, punching keys and miraculously recovering the stolen mystery file. He cursed under his breath, and returned to the elevator.
He hit the button for the lobby. As the doors slid to close, a hand suddenly appeared in the gap. He jumped, but as the doors opened, Ananda’s face appeared. His friend took one look at him and broke into a grin.
“Did I scare you?” He stepped into the elevator. “I scared you.” The doors shut. The elevator started its short ride up.
Jayden covered his paranoia by swearing and managed a question. “What are you doing sneaking around?”
“Working,” Ananda said, facing forward. “I got carried away. I didn’t notice the time.”
He looked sideways at Jayden. “What about you? Why are you sneaking around? This isn’t even your floor.”
Jayden shrugged to cover his discomfort. “I got distracted and punched the wrong floor.”
Ananda snorted. “That’s our Jayden, lost in the fog.”
Relieved his lie was believable enough, he didn’t have to feign good-natured outrage. “Hey, watch it now. It could happen to anybody.” Ananda just laughed.
Sal was at her post as they went through security. “One early, one late. Again,” she said, fixing Ananda with a stare. He waved her off.
As they stepped through the glass front doors, Jayden hesitated, then, feeling a bit awkward, said, “Hey, do you want to get a drink or something?”
But Ananda was already hurrying toward a blue minivan. “I can’t. I’m late getting home.” He raised his voice as the distance increased. “Kyra had to pick up the kid tonight and she is not happy about that, since I have the baby mobile.”
His last words were shouted as he reached the minivan. He climbed in and started it up, then accelerated out of the gate. Jayden made his way toward his own car and drove straight home.
* * *
He arrived at the apartment to sounds from the television and the sight of Tracey busy in the kitchen wearing a short pink robe and slippers, and some kind of hat. “You’re home early,” she said, filling two margarita glasses from a small pitcher.
He headed to the refrigerator for a beer. “Remember? I worked late on Friday night. What’s that on your head?”
“It’s a turban. Rose Pink. Like it? You can turn it so the flower is on top like this, or on the side, or at the nape of the neck.”
“It’s lovely,” he said as he popped the cap on the beer. “Do I smell popcorn?”
“You do. It’s chick flick night. We’re binge watching classic Reese Witherspoon.”
He peeked into the living room. There was a blonde woman curled up on the couch, wearing a gray athleisure outfit and fuzzy orange slippers. “Hi, Jayden!” she called. She fumbled for the remote and paused the video.
“You remember Debbie, don’t you? We go riding together.”
Jayden wasn’t sure he did. Debbie looked like a horse woman, long and slender, generally athletic. She wore her long hair in a loose braid that came forward over her left shoulder.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Debbie said, grabbing a handful of popcorn from a half-empty bowl.
Jayden smiled at her and turned away and lowered his voice. “Hey, Trace?”
“Yes, you are welcome to join us.” Tracey grabbed pot holders and peeked in the oven.
“No, that’s not what I was going to ask,” he said. “Saturday morning, when I came home. It was after two, right?”
“Yes,” Tracey replied, shutting the oven door again. “I was getting up to go riding. It was more like seven or eight o’clock.”
“And I told you why I was late?”
Tracey edged past him, casting him a quizzical look. “Yes. You had trouble uploading someone. Angela something, was it?” She opened a cupboard and got out a cobalt blue plate.
Jayden pressed on. “And I mentioned a computer virus?”
Tracey paused at the counter. “What is this, an episode of Law and Order? Okay, you got me on that one. I don’t remember. What’s your point?”
“Nothing.” He waved it off. “Forget it.”
Tracey put her hands on her hips. “Look. You were upset about something at work, and I listened. I didn’t know there was going to be a test, or I would’ve taken notes.
“Here.” She thrust the plate into his hands. “Can you take the eggrolls out of the oven, please? And do feel free to join us.”
She picked up the drinks and rejoined Debbie in the living room.
Jayden opened the oven door. The eggrolls looked good. Wherever they were from, it wasn’t the frozen food section of the supermarket. Maybe he’d watch movies with them after all. Grilling Tracey wasn’t his style. He was losing it by doubting himself. And if he kept that up, whoever had changed things to look the way they did would have won.
* * *
The next afternoon, Jayden went through security with a determined stride—only dimly aware of Sal greeting him as he swiped through—and headed straight to the deeps. He’d figured out something important last night, after watching the last half of Legally Blonde and all of Wild with Tracey and Debbie. Whoever had taken the quarantined file and erased a chunk of the logs was waiting for him to come unhinged. They’d be expecting him to storm Sharon’s office to report a potentially harmful virus of unknown origin, and talking about conspiracies. The result? No one would believe him, and assuming Sharon didn’t suggest he take a little time off, whoever had done all this could continue their activities knowing that if Jayden kept reporting things, he’d be completely discredited. No one else knew about the quarantined file, not even Fu.
He’d decided to act like nothing had happened. This strategy came with an added advantage. He could check into things without everyone scrutinizing his behavior. Of course, it was likely whoever had moved the mystery file from quarantine—and he had no reason to believe anyone had deleted it because of its unusual properties—would be keeping an eye on his movements. Well then, let them confront him. At least he’d find out who was responsible.
He flipped open his combat-camo notebook, fired it up, and logged in. Sharon was hailing him. He opened the window and put the video up on monitor two.
Sharon’s expression was calm. “I thought you’d be down there already. Say, there are only three uploads tonight. We had a couple of cancellations.”
Jayden nodded. Sometimes the scheduled ones decided to postpone in order to attend family events, or simply to enjoy life on the Outside a bit longer. Sometimes those who wanted to do it naturally died before they could get here, which Jayden thought was a complete waste. He’d put out a public service announcement about that iffy choice if he could. “I’ll take them if Claire wants the night off,” he said.
Sharon sighed. “Funny. Claire said the same thing.”
Everyone needed their paycheck, of course. It was for these slow days that Jayden had offered to work in the deeps. “Okay. I can keep myself busy working with Gig and the servers if you want.”
“Sounds good,” she replied, then winked. “I’ll give Claire the cases. Thanks. Have a good night.”
Jayden sat back, not believing his luck. Sharon knew full well that he’d have some extra time on his hands, and she didn’t care how he spent it. Part of him wanted to get into the security system and go through the Friday night video. But given Sal had told him video was saved for seven days, that could wait. What he really needed to do was check up on Angela Spelling. And now he didn’t even have to beg or make up some kind of excuse to do it. All he had to do was wait till the tech floor cleared out for the day and then go in. Doing recon wasn’t exactly on the server maintenance list, but if anyone asked him about it later, he could cobble together a pretty good reason, and Sharon would back him up.
Copyright © 2021. Uploading Angela by Lettie Prell